2:49 pm Sep. 21, 2012
It seems axiomatic today that a protest movement or political campaign requires round-the-clock documentation: to any populace drowning in rhetoric, a well-placed camera will speak louder than a thousand pamphlets.
David France, director of the simple and powerful AIDS activism documentary How To Survive a Plague, out now, considers it important that news of H.I.V. first appeared in medical journals just months before the first generation of camcorders became available, immediately broadening the definition of “mass media.” Those cameras, and what they shot, are his movie.
The bulky camcorders served a multipurpose agenda: establishing accountability in a leaderless mass movement; documenting the struggle for the sake of posterity, so that future generations could not say that no one fought; and, of course, memorialization, because most AIDS-infected individuals had no expectation of outlasting such a fierce and brutal enemy. In culling 700 hours of archival footage, most of it shot by protesters themselves, into a briskly paced feature film, France has fashioned an emotionally resonant, teachable, and historically indispensable act of witness.
France, a veteran journalist who wrote the first story about ACT UP for the Village Voice, and continued covering the story for years, marks Greenwich Village as the epicenter of the AIDS crisis. He begins his chronicle in 1987, the virus’ sixth year, when desperation, a nearly 100 percent fatality rate, and a lecture by playwright Larry Kramer led to the spontaneous formation of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. The cameras capture a packed room of people for whom civil disobedience was not just personal, but a last-ditch bid for survival. As the posters with the pink triangle made plain, silence did equal death.
If How To Survive a Plague sounds like an urban horror movie, it should. In 1985, a majority of Americans supported the quarantine of AIDS patients—Lyndon LaRouche would even sponsor a California ballot initiative proposing the same—and a year later William F. Buckley asked that they at least be marked with tattoos. Treating the dying young men as both patient and pariah—when not turning them away entirely—hospitals would sometimes transport the bodies in black trash bags. Unable to depend on appeals to basic humanity, even in a medical center, the average AIDS activist was fighting for the very right to receive care.
The battle for better treatment would soon follow. AZT was the first approved AIDS drug, and it immediately became the most expensive drug ever released, with a price tag of approximately $10,000 per patient, per year. In chronicling this struggle, How To Survive a Plague equates advocacy with education and self-empowerment. Instigated by the foot-dragging Food and Drug Administration’s inability to quickly approve potentially life-saving experimental drugs (and alternatives to AZT, which had become a controversial treatment), AIDS activists turned themselves into amateur scientists, created their own black-market treatment channels, and drafted proposals for clinical trials. When all else failed, they threw their bodies at the relevant halls of power, and covered Jesse Helms’ house with an outsize condom; radicalized and rendered fearless by their proximity to the dead and dying, ACT UP could engineer a hell of a storm.
The film harnesses the kind of archival footage that requires little elaboration. It captures ACT UP’s dramatic 1989 demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. To protest the Catholic Archdiocese’s opposition to AIDS education and condom distribution, the activists disrupted a packed Sunday mass, staging a die-in on the floor while letting their shouts reverberate: “Stop Killing Us!” Allying civil disobedience to performance art, activist Ray Navarro “covered” the incident as television reporter Jesus Christ. News cameras were present to film ACT UP’s protest at President George H.W. Bush’s Kennebunkport retreat, where the group interrupted a pleasant round of golf to demonstrate against his inaccurate statements about the government’s commitment to AIDS research. The movie revisits the Clinton presidential campaign to suggest that on the AIDS issue, politicians were either hostile, clueless, or—notwithstanding the rhetorical currency of “I feel your pain”—ineffectual.
Generally avoiding hagiography, France doesn’t shy away from the acrimony that ultimately splintered the seemingly single-minded organization. The group’s leaderlessness meant that meetings were open forums, and thus present-tense testaments to democracy’s imperfections. In the movie’s angriest moment, Larry Kramer twists his face into an angry scowl to interrupt a rancorous debate about procedure. “We are in the middle of a fucking plague, and you behave like this!”
In this depiction of a united effort, individual actors are de-emphasized, though Kramer’s theatrical harangue is hard to forget. Other figures seem deserving of an expansive biography. The story of Iris Long, Ph.D., is particularly inspiring: after 20 years of experience in drug development, a middle-aged married woman who had never knowingly met a homosexual became one of ACT UP’s most effective agents for medical reform.
How To Survive a Plague is emphatically experiential, not comprehensive. (Another documentary tribute to ACT UP, Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger, premiered in New York this past summer with a far smaller marketing push.) France’s movie seems less invested in contemporary gay rights struggles than in offering a how-to guide for effective leaderless direct-action advocacy. The battle changes, the technology improves, but the tactics live on: France doesn’t make a point of it, but ACT UP’s inaugural protest took place on Wall Street.
'How To Survive a Plague' is now playing at IFC Center.
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